Choosing a University

Choosing a University

Featured - August 8, 2015


While academic qualifications and securing future employment are usually the primary aim for most students applying to University, the three or four years spent on a tertiary campus can offer far more than a few letters after a name and a gateway to a career. The right university experience can develop leadership and independence, can cement a conscience, can give access to a plethora of likeminded thinkers and can educate in the broadest sense of the word. The intellectual knowledge and the experiences outside the lecture halls can be transformative. For these and many other reasons, selecting the ‘right’ university is a crucial decision

Interestingly Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Nelson Mandela share the fact that they dropped out of their university studies – yet all acknowledge that the experience, relationships and thinking acquired while there proved invaluable to them becoming world leaders. For them and many others, a university offered far more than academic qualifications and these factors should also be considered significant when selecting where to spend your time after school.

In the case of Steve Jobs, it was after he dropped out and took unofficial classes that he developed a more creative, broader point of view. He attributed his calligraphy class with providing the basis for the typography used in the first Macintosh computer. The environment and friends of Harvard College cultivated a collaborative and driven mind-set which led to Mark Zuckerberg founding Facebook in his dorm room. Nelson Mandela is considered Wits University’s most illustrious alumnus. He enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand Law Faculty and met students of all races and was exposed to liberal, radical and Africanist thought. Many would agree, it was these experiences, more than his incomplete academics that were the most significant learning he took with him from Wits.

The overall reputation of an institution is the first thing a prospective student should research. Rankings are a valuable place to start, but their context and focus should be kept in mind in relation to a student’s needs and priorities. For instance locally, UCT remains the top-ranked African university in the QS World University Rankings and is a top institution in the 2014 ARWU rankings, based largely on the quantity and quality of its research output. On the other hand, Wits University was ranked as a leader when measuring wealth, reputation and leadership, the number of successful CEOs among its graduates and is the highest ranking South African university highest earners when measuring global executives and global employability. Students should consider the rankings which align with their priorities, needs and strengths and use these as a foundation for further investigation.

Far more important than the general standing of an institution, are the records and rankings of the specific relevant departments, programmes and faculty members. Prospective students should actively investigate specific courses (including the actual curriculum and the tutors delivering it) as well as the programme content, class sizes, access to individualised attention and student support structures. Often discussions with industry specialists, alumni and current students can provide valuable insight into such details.

The location of a campus is a third consideration. While mountains and landscapes may be seductive, access to transport, proximity to resources, and links with family and friends become increasingly important as university pressure mounts and students should never underestimate the value of a nearby support structure. Independence is undoubtedly an important aspect of student life and many students, in a pursuit of autonomy choose a campus furthest from their parents- but the downside (and time-consuming distractions) of cooking, travelling, cleaning and laundry often outweigh the attraction of distance from family in the long term, particularly when undertaking a high demand degree. Factors such as cold weather (particularly when considering international studies), the rain, and travelling as well as accommodation costs should also be factored into the decision.

Most students don’t extend their thoughts beyond these factors and seldom do they investigate the ‘feel’ of a campus, the intellectual challenges available and the value-added aspects. To gain the most benefit from a university experience a student needs to feel a part of the very ethos and character of that university. Any campus possesses certain attributes, qualities, abilities and personality traits. Being able to operate in a multicultural and diverse space is important as South Africans, as is the need to be globally competitive. The whole student experience is important, from classmates who will challenge or develop one another, to the causes which may be supported or the confrontations which may arise. Complete engagement and commitment are essential for a meaningful university experience and students should actively search for the campus which is going to both nurture and extend them the most.

Further considerations when selecting a university are the collaborative opportunities and exchange programmes available to students, the transferability of a qualification, global recognition and accreditation as well as international post graduate prospects. Finally other crucial factors for individual students could include affordability, a cultural match and personal or family needs.

Ultimately an underlying guiding factor should be your understanding of the purpose and role of university education. On the one hand there are the realities of economic needs, employability and long-term career which dictate that the credibility and usefulness of an academic qualification is paramount. On the other hand, a university is also about self-discovery, a quest for creative thought and deeper knowledge, about freedom of expression, tolerance and authentic democracy.

With Jobs, Zuckerberg and Mandela, their immersion in a challenging, creative and diverse environment contributed significantly to their innovative thinking and leadership. By being exposed to different, sometimes radical opinions, being driven by vision and competition and having the intellectual and moral support of peers was ultimately more important than a formal qualification.

After completing extensive research a student should then, as Sershin Naicker of Wits University recommends “actually go and spend some time at the university. Take in the sights and sounds, experience the university first hand. Then ask yourself, does this feel like the right place for me to be?”

With some common sense and foresight it is not difficult to avoid ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’ universities. Far more difficult is identifying the ‘best’ university for you personally – one that is going to give you the most challenging and valuable experience and enrich your life for the long term. This is a life changing decision and one that should be undertaken with great care –as Madiba said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”